Over the centuries, human interest has attached legendary details to these travelers, such as their names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Underlying the legends is the belief that the wise men represent us all. Thus, a tradition emerged that said they were of different ages, young, middle aged and the elders.
By the twelfth century, in many of the Northern European art, the wise men were depicted as coming from the three known continents. The youngest, Balthasar was African, Melchior, was middle-aged and European, while Caspar was an elder and an Asian. All of us are represented.
What were these “wise men” seeking? Their explanation to King Herod was that they were seeking the “newborn king of the Jews.” They had seen “His star in its rising and have come to do Him homage” (Mt 2:2).
The wise men are led by a star. Thomas Aquinas comments that many people think their lives are controlled by the stars according to some sort of fate. Some people think that their lives continue to be governed by the position of the stars when they were born (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew).
Thomas asserts that “His” (Jesus’) star does not control Him. Rather His star is a “sign,” announcing who He is: “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1).
Thomas admits that humans are affected by natural forces. We might think of the way that the weather, sunshine, rain, etc. affect us. Even the moon can affect us, though not as much as dogs who howl at the full moon.
Nevertheless, Thomas insists that our free will is stronger than any disposition in our bodies. We are not controlled because we can choose the extent to which we may be affected by natural forces.
Although Thomas doesn’t mention this here, many people let their past sins and mistakes dominate their perception of themselves. This King frees us from the effects of the past. There is no inevitable fate from which we can’t escape.
People have an intuition that they are going somewhere. They instinctively try to understand the events of their lives and ask, “Why did this happen?” Thomas Aquinas maintains that God’s Providence guides each person’s life but not in a way that takes away a person’s freedom: “freedom of will is not taken away by divine providence” Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 73) St. Thomas says that God doesn’t force us but He draws us.
The Second Vatican Council states that each person seeks God, even if the person may not articulate what it is that he or she seeks. The Council teaches that even those who do not know the Gospel or the Church or do not have an explicit knowledge of God yet seek to live in a right way are doing God’s will are guided by God’s Providence (Lumen gentium, “Constitution on the Church,” 16).
Those in the Consecrated Life especially dedicate themselves to seeking Jesus. In his Rule, St. Benedict tells the monks and nuns not to easily admit newcomers but to leave them outside for four or five days. Then the aspirant should be examined. St. Benedict says” “The concern must be whether the novice truly seeks God…” (Rule, 58)
Sr. Joan Chittister, O.S.B. recounts the visit that the prioress of her monastery would make each year to visit the novices. The prioress would ask the assembled novices a question: “Why have you come to religious life?” They would offer various answers: “to save souls,” “to convert the world,” “to serve the church.” To each answer, the prioress would shake her head. Finally she said, “You have come to religious life only to seek God” (The Fire in These Ashes, 44-45).
Sr. Chittister reflects that there are many explanations for religious life at present, all of which are partially true, but insists:
Through it all, one thing and one thing only can sustain religious life, can nourish religious life, can justify religious life. The religious must be the person who first and foremost, always and forever, in whatever circumstances, seeks God and God alone, sees God and God alone in all of this confusion, in all of this uncertainty and, whatever the situation speaks God – and God alone (The Fire in These Ashes, 46).
Thomas Aquinas teaches that even those who already believers are on a journey of faith similar to that of the Wise Men:
Those Magi are the first-fruits of the nations and prefigure in themselves our condition. For they presuppose something, namely, the birth of Christ, and they look for something, namely, the place. We, indeed, have Christ by faith, but we look for something by hope: for we shall see him face to face: ‘We walk by faith, not by sight’ (2 Cor 5:7) (Commentary on Matthew).
The star shines in each of our lives. At times in our journey, the star shines brighter and we have a sense of where we are going. At other times, we lose our focus and our direction. We lose sight of the star. We get distracted by something else. It’s different for every one of us. Ultimately, the Wise Men recovered their vision through the Scriptures.
In fact, as Thomas indicates the way of believers is not by signs but by the Scriptures: “We are instructed that we, who are believers, should not seek signs, as those did who, seeing the star, rejoiced exceedingly; but we ought to be content with the doctrines of the prophets, because signs are given for unbelievers” (Commentary on Matthew).
Thomas comments that when the Wise Men saw the star, “they rejoiced,” because they had begun to fear that they would not find the King for whom they had come such long distances. Thomas recalls Paul’s words, “Rejoice in hope” (Rom 12:12).
Christian art depicts the wise men coming upon the Child and His Mother, magnificently clad, in a beautiful setting. Thomas Aquinas reflects that what the wise men saw could have been very disappointing. They saw a poor house, a weak baby and the wife of a worker, not a wealthy home or family.
And yet, Thomas informs us, the Wise Men rejoiced, “because they now knew great things about God, namely, that God was in the flesh and was most merciful… They were moved with admiration” (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew).
Thomas affirms: “They showed the child reverence by adoring and offering and obeying… therefore, they fell down and worshipped him, as God concealed in man” (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew). The Wise Men came to the end of their journey by adoring the Son of God.
At the end of his Gospel, Matthew uses the same words to describe the apostles as they encounter the Risen Jesus before His Ascension: “When they saw Him, they worshipped Him” (Mt 28:17). Jesus is adored at the beginning and the end of the Gospel. We reach the purpose of our journeys, as we adore Jesus.
In his letter, Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis teaches that the central point of the Liturgy is the encounter with Christ:
When preaching takes place within the context of the liturgy, it is part of the offering made to the Father and a mediation of the grace which Christ pours out during the celebration. This context demands that preaching should guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist (138).
When the Wise Men entered the house, they found the Child “with Mary His Mother.” Mary helps us focus on her Son. Writing on the Rosary, Pope Paul VI stated that “we meditate on Him through the eyes of the one who was closest to Him” (Paul VI, Marialis Cultus, 46).
Similarly, St John Paul II, in his letter on the rosary, explained that we sit “at the school of Mary and are led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love” (John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 1).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, translated by Fabian Larcher, O.P., is available on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/